On Feb. 6, protesters blocked roads at an estimated 10,000 spots across India as part of the ongoing movement against the new farm laws enacted by the national government last year. For over two months, the most populous democracy in the world has witnessed what is being called one of the biggest protests in human history.
Hundreds of thousands of farmers have been rallying against three new laws that have thrown open the agriculture sector to private players. Protesters feel the legislation will allow a corporate takeover of crop production and trading, which would eventually impact their earnings and land ownership. They are camping on the roads connecting the national capital with major north Indian cities, braving harsh winters and smear campaigns from the mainstream media and ruling party supporters. Over 224 protesters have already lost their lives for various reasons, chief among them camping outdoors in the frigid weather.
The movement has overcome regional, religious, gender and ideological differences to build pressure. Leftist farm unions, religious organizations and traditional caste-based brotherhoods called khaps, which make pronouncements on social issues, are working in tandem through resolute sit-ins and an aggressive boycott of politicians.
India’s right-wing government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, pushed the laws through the parliament in September, despite lacking a majority in the upper house and agriculture being in the jurisdiction of state governments. The protest is a response to the lack of respect for parliamentary democracy and federalism, but its main focus is the pervasive corporate influence on governance.
“We believe the laws have been framed at the direction of the private sector to directly benefit them. So, the protests have to target big businesses along with the government,” said Jagmohan Singh, president of one of the farm unions representing protesting farmers.
After limits on corporate contributions were removed and allowed to be made anonymously, $8.2 billion was spent on Indian parliamentary elections in 2019, which exceeded how much was spent on the U.S. election in 2016 by 26 percent. Most of this money came from corporations and the BJP was the primary recipient.
The political-corporate influence is also jeopardizing media’s independence in the country. India ranks 142nd out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index. Mainstream TV news channels often eulogize the government and Hindu right-wing ideology and smear voices of dissent and minorities. Farmers and their supporters have responded by boycotting media outlets, starting their own newsletters and promoting independent journalism. The movement has already received global attention on social media, with climate activist Greta Thunberg and pop star Rihana recently extending support to the protesters.
Farm crisis is the fuel
Farmers are a large electoral block in India, with half the population being engaged in agriculture. No political party can afford to offend them publicly even though policy makers have done little to increase farm incomes and address their indebtedness. Around 300,000 farmers died by suicide between 1995 and 2013, mostly due to financial stress. In 2019, another 10,281 farmers took their lives.
The Modi government came to power in 2014 on the promise of doubling farmer’s income. It claims the new laws will help fulfill that pledge by allowing for the sale of produce and contract farming outside the purview of state governments and remove of cap on stockholding of food items. Farmers, however, are not buying these arguments.
“The laws are tilted against the farmers and give a free hand to private companies by removing the safeguard of state market committees, which usually intervene in case of disputes with traders,” said Gurtej Singh, a farmer from Punjab. “The committee members are easily accessible even to small farmers, compared to the courts or district officials, which the new laws propose as regulatory authorities.”
Indian farms are mostly family-owned and land is a source of subsistence for millions. Around 86 percent of farmers, however, till less than five acres while the other 14 percent, mostly upper castes, own over half of the country’s 388 million acres of arable land.
Farmers in a few north Indian states were able to consolidate their holdings through increased incomes with the introduction of irrigation, modern seeds, fertilizers, machines, market infrastructure and guaranteed price support from the government during the Green Revolution in the 1960s. But rising input costs and climate crisis have adversely impacted the profits there as well. In Punjab, the most agriculturally-developed state, for instance, the input costs of electric motors, labor, fertilizer and fuel rose by 100 to 290 percent from 2000 to 2013, but the support price of wheat and rice rose by only 122 to 137 percent in the same period, according to a government report. Heavy use of chemicals, mono-cropping and farm mechanization have damaged the soil, affecting productivity and forcing farmers into debt.
Now they fear that the new laws will dismantle the government support system as well and further push them into poverty.
“Laws are just the imminent trigger. The protest is actually a manifestation of anger about the constant decline in farming as a profitable occupation over the last few decades,” Singh said. “We have mostly been handed short term relief around election times.”
The new farm laws were enacted at a time when India had yet to recover from one of the most punitive lockdowns in the world imposed in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which prevented large gatherings. However, the government lost the battle of perceptions from the very start. Since farming is the largest avenue of self-employment and subsistence in India, throwing the sector open to private players was bound to kindle fears that owners would lose autonomy over their lands.
Strength and strategy
Punjab saw widespread protests as soon as the laws were enacted. Farmers occupied railway tracks and toll plazas on major roads besides corporate-owned thermal plants, gas stations and shopping malls. Scores of subscribers left Jio, the telecom service owned by the top Indian businessman perceived to be close to Prime Minister Modi.
Farm unions also held regular sit-ins in front of the houses of prominent political leaders forcing an important regional party to leave the national government alliance. Several state leaders of the ruling party resigned from their posts as well. Similar scenes played out in the neighboring state of Haryana, where leaders were publicly shamed and the helicopter of the elected head of the government was prevented from landing for a public meeting after farmers dug up the helipad area.
In November, thousands of farmers drove their tractor trolleys towards the national capital as they played protest songs by celebrity singers. Stocked with rations, clothing, water and wood for months, they braved tear gas shells and water cannons used by the police along the way. Powerful tractors pushed heavy transport vehicles, concrete slabs and barbed wires that the administration had placed en route out of their way.
Stopping at the northern and western borders of New Delhi, the long cavalcades of tractor trolleys turned into encampments, and numerous community kitchens sprang up. Residents of nearby villages and towns chipped in by supplying milk and vegetables, and offering bathrooms in their houses, shops, gas stations and offices for use by protesters.
Open libraries and medical camps were set up and volunteers offered their skills, ranging from tailoring to tutoring children. Besides speeches by the farm leaders, cultural performances, film screenings and wrestling bouts became a regular feature. More farmers poured in with each passing day. Indians in the diaspora gave donations to farm unions and village councils, which offered money for fuel and other expenses to villagers who could not afford to visit the protest sites on their own. The resistance to the corporatization of agriculture has penetrated deep.
“These occupations are not just a reaction of wronged citizens who have set out to reform the Indian parliament or assert dissent. Rather, they form an important stage in a still-unfolding narrative of militant anti-capitalist struggle,” wrote Aditya Bahl, a doctoral scholar at the John Hopkins University who is archiving the peasants’ revolts that took place in Punjab in the 1960s and ’70s.
The Indian Supreme Court suspended the implementation of laws and formed a four-member expert committee on Jan. 13 to look into the issue. Farmers have, however, refused to meet the committee members, alleging that many of them have already written or spoken in favor of the laws.
The protests are not only targeting domestic companies and political figures. Farmers have also burnt effigies of Uncle Sam, the World Trade Organization and IMF, signifying the influence of global trade over domestic agricultural policies. Developed countries have been pressuring India for last three decades to open up its agriculture sector to multinational players by slashing subsidies and reducing public procurement and distribution of food grains to the poor.
“Agricultural reforms and free markets have failed to help American farmers who are dying by suicide due to heavy debts,” explained food and trade policy expert Devinder Sharma. “Their farm incomes are in the negative, even though they have big landholdings and billions of dollars of income support from the government. How can the same model work for India, especially when it’s not even designed for our domestic conditions?”
“If Indian farmers are able to get the law on guaranteed price passed through their current agitation, they will become a role model for farmers across the world living under heavy debts,” Sharma continued. “India should put its foot down at the WTO and create much-needed disruption in the world food trade policy for the benefit of the global agriculture sector.”
The movement grows
The BJP-led national government has faced numerous protests over the last six years of its rule, including by university students, workers and caste and religious minorities. With the help of media and security agencies, however, the government has always been able to frame dissent as being unpatriotic. The country has dropped 26 places in the Democracy Index’s global ranking since 2014 due to “erosion of civil liberties.”
This is the first time peasants have been galvanized in such large numbers against the government. The government has already held 11 rounds of negotiations with farmers’ representatives and offered to suspend the laws for one and a half years on Jan. 20. But farmers are not budging from their demand of the complete repeal of the laws and legal cover for the selling of their crops at a guaranteed price.
The movement, initiated by Punjab’s farmers, has taken on a national character. On Jan. 26, which marks India’s Republic Day, 19 out of 28 states witnessed protests against the farm laws.
In Delhi, however, a plan to organize a farmers’ tractor march parallel to the official Republic Day function, went awry. A group of protesters clashed with police at multiple spots and stormed the iconic Red Fort, a traditional seat of power for the Mughals, where the colonial British and independent India’s prime ministers have also raised their flags.
The protesters unfurled banners of the farm unions and Sikhs — one of the minority religious groups and the most prominent face of the protests. Mainstream media and ruling party supporters used the opportunity to blame the movement for desecration and religious terrorism. Security forces charged sleeping farmers with batons at one location, filed cases against movement leaders, allowed opponents to pelt campaigners with stones, arrested journalists and shut down the Internet.
The rural-urban divide became starker on the night of Jan. 27. While TV anchors and their captive urban audience smirked at visuals of a leader of the farmers’ movement crying as he faced imminent arrest, villages erupted in anger. Temple priests gave calls over public address systems, nightly meetings were arranged and thousands drove hundreds of miles through a foggy winter night to reach the protest site on eastern fringe of national capital New Delhi, compelling the administration to pull the police back and restart the water and power supply to the protest site.
The attacks, therefore, ended up lifting the flagging morale of the farmers and helped the movement gain even more supporters, who shunned the government and media narrative. Massive community gatherings of khaps were organized at multiple places over next few days, extending their support to the protests and issuing a boycott call for the BJP and its political allies.
Smear campaigns to depict Sikh farmers as terrorists, a reference to an armed movement in the 1980s and ’90s for a separate homeland, found no resonance beyond the right-wing echo chamber. Sikh protesters draw inspiration from the religious tenets of community service, equality and the fight against injustice. Community kitchens run by Sikh organizations have served through many humanitarian crisis, like the ongoing civil war in Syria and movements like Black Lives Matter. Sikhs in India have remained steadfastly egalitarian, ready to support other religious minorities in times of need.
Mending fault lines
The movement has also been able to overcome regional and gender divisions, and is trying to address caste divides.
The states of Haryana and Punjab are often at loggerheads on the issue of sharing of river waters. Haryana was carved out of Punjab on linguistic lines in 1966, but most of the rivers flow through the current Punjab state. Haryana has been seeking a greater amount of water for use by its farmers, while Punjab’s farmers oppose the demand, citing reduced water flow in the rivers over the years. The current protests have united farmers for a common cause, helping them understand each other even though opponents have made attempts revive the water issue.
Women have also been participating in the protests in large numbers. They are either occupying roads on Delhi’s borders or managing homes and farms in the absence of men, while taking part in protest marches in villages.
“Earlier, we were able to rally only 8,000-10,000 women for a protest. Today that number has swelled to 25,000-30,000, as they recognized the threats posed by the new laws to the livelihoods of their families,” said Harinder Bindu, who leads the women’s wing of the largest farm union in Punjab. “For many women this is the first time they are participating in a protest, which is a big change because they were earlier confined to household work. Men are getting used to seeing women participate and recognizing the value they bring to a movement.”
The union first encouraged the male leaders to include the women in their families with the cause to set an example for other members as well.
“This helped inculcate the habit of sharing responsibilities,” Bindu said. “When women members participate in sit-ins, men manage the house. I feel this movement will bring greater focus on women’s issues within the farming community — one of which is the need to support widows of farmers who died by suicide due to financial constraints.”
In Punjab, less than four percent of private farm land belongs to Dalits, the lowest caste in the traditional social hierarchy of India, even though they constitute 32 percent of the state’s population. They often earn their livelihoods through farm work or daily wage labor. Even though Dalits have a legal right to till village common land, attempts to assert that right often lead to violent clashes with upper caste landlords who want to keep it for themselves.
Dalits are waging similar battles across India. Researchers recorded 31 land conflicts involving 92,000 Dalits in 2019. A few of the farmers’ unions have supported and raised funds for Dalit agitations in the past. This has ensured the participation of farm workers in the current movement, but it has largely remained a farmers’ campaign.
“Dalits do understand that the new laws will impact them. Initially some of the workers did join the protests but they can’t afford to lose daily wages and also lack resources to travel long distance,” said Gurmukh Singh, a social activist working with Dalits to claim their right to cultivate village common land in Punjab. “But it’s not easy to overcome caste barriers. The acceptance and understanding evident in the leaders of the farmers’ unions is yet to percolate among their cadre.”
The movement is gradually encompassing other rural issues beyond the farm laws. In the state of Maharashtra, for instance, thousands of tribal people traveled to the capital Mumbai on Jan. 23 to extend support to the farmers. They also asserted their own long pending demand for land titles under the Forest Rights Act, which recognizes traditional rights of scheduled tribes and other forest dwellers on the use of land and other forest resources.
Starting from Punjab, the epicenter of protests has now extended to Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state of India, and leaders are planning to muster more support from central India.
The persistent protests also forced the government to hold an extensive debate on the issue in the parliament at the beginning of February, even though it did not lead to any resolution. The UK parliament may also consider debating the farmers’ protests and press freedom in India after an online petition on its website gathered the required number of signatures. Farmers’ leaders, meanwhile, have reaffirmed their stand to stay put on the roads for the long haul and have now decided to block railway tracks across the country for four hours on Feb. 18.